6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Friday, April 29, 2011

Athena's Glory

          Seeing Miss Glickson in the doorway of their A frame cabin, blubbering to his mother about her missing kitten, prompts Trevor to go upstairs and check his own pets. Despite his parent’s mild protests, the recently turned teenager has already accumulated two dogs, a guinea pig, three tarantulas, and a four foot python. Everything but the twin basset hounds are permanent residents of the young boy’s loft, built to overlook an old growth forest bordering the mountain town of Timberline. A quick glance confirms all his animals are visible, except the constrictor which remains balled up under a branch in one corner of its aquarium. At the opposite end of the glass cage, a white mouse darts back and forth obsessively pressing against the transparent walls with human-like hands.

          Tapping on the cage with one finger, Trevor whispers, “Rufus is gonna wake up soon.”

          He hears the front door close and glances out his window to see the old woman shuffling away from their front porch, back across the road to her own dilapidated cottage. With dusk giving way to night, the block’s only streetlight flickers on as she reaches her driveway. The fluorescent glow causes a faint reflection of the young boy to appear in the glass, but where his eyes should be, he sees two large golden orbs instead. As if someone has managed to trick him into wearing a pair of bug-eyed sunglasses without him knowing, Trevor reaches for his face with his fingertips. As the teenager touches his cheeks, confirming only the presence of flesh, the glowing disks blink close and then slowly re-open. Trevor realizes he is staring into the eyes of a large creature on his window ledge, and as if mentally deciphering an optical illusion, the animal’s dark silhouette becomes readily apparent.

          Perched on the young boy’s windowsill is the largest owl Trevor has ever seen. The magnificent raptor stands nearly a meter tall and appears to be wearing a hooded gray cloak cinched tight about its face. Although he has never seen one before, Trevor recognizes the image from one of his many nature books. It is the ghost hunter, the great gray owl. Subconsciously, the teenager pulls his face away from the hooked beak on the other side of the glass. As the boy inches backwards, the owl leans in even closer. It is then Trevor realizes the owl isn’t looking at him, but over his shoulder at the warm snake aquarium. Subtle twitches in those giant golden orbs reveal an intense focus on every movement of the white rodent.

          “You hungry? Might have to fight Rufus for it.”

          Trevor reaches towards the window with one hand and wiggles his fingers expecting the great bird to take flight. Never taking its attention from the aquarium, the owl seems absolutely indifferent towards the boy’s presence. In spite of his father’s voice sounding an alarm in the back of his mind, Trevor feels compelled to press his luck. Half-terrified, but uncontrollably curious, the teenager grabs the handle at the bottom of the frame and begins to slide the glass upwards.

          Again, he expects the owl to retreat back into the dark woods, but instead, before the pane is even halfway open, the great gray owl ducks under the wooden frame and boldly steps onto the interior ledge of the windowsill. Trevor takes two full steps backwards, instantly noting the thick, black talons protruding from the owl’s gnarled toes. From the shins down, the giant bird’s feet are covered in what looks like dull yellow scales. With claws ten times the size of his python’s fangs, the young boy has little doubt what kind of damage the raptor is capable of inflicting.

          Unsure of what to do next, Trevor is tempted to call down to his parents. He is afraid the sound of his voice might frighten away the visitor, or even worse, prompt a panicked reaction. Not in a million years would they approve of him opening windows for wild animals; they had enough concerns over his store bought pets. Instead, another idea flashes through his brain.

          “I take it you like mice? Guess I can stop at the pet store tomorrow and grab another one.”

          The owl bobs its head in what looks like deliberate confirmation to the young boy’s question. Trevor slowly backs away from the enormous bird and towards the aquarium. Betraying an otherwise unruffled facade, the great owl shifts its weight from one clawed foot to the other. The young boy pulls back the top of the cage and retrieves the mouse by its long tail.

          “I’ve got some good news and some bad news for y…” he begins, but the mouse cuts him off in mid-sentence by bending at the waist and reaching up to climb its own tail. Before the animal can bite his fingers, Trevor shakes his hand, accidently releasing the rodent. Instantly, the owl drops from its windowsill perch, wings extending nearly half the width of his room for a split second before refolding. The two animals hit the floor at the same moment with the pink-eyed mouse pinned beneath a gripping claw. In the next fluid motion, the owl severs the rodent’s spine with one quick bite of razor sharp beak. Feeling equally stunned, Trevor stands there mouth agape as the great gray owl turns, and with one silent flap of wings, is back through the window into the brisk night air.

          Unable to process what he just witnessed, all Trevor can do is stumble to his window and watch the owl bank over Miss Glickson’s house, vanishing amongst the impossibly large ponderosas edging her property. A toothy grin swallowing the lower half of his face, the young boy is tempted to run downstairs and tell his parents what just happened. Almost immediately, the powerful urge to share the encounter is tempered by reason. He knows from past experience with a juvenile black bear they didn’t want him feeding wild animals. Coupled with the wasting of expensive mice, the teenager is certain his parents would expressly forbid him from doing something like that again. Adopting a motto he learned from an older cousin, Trevor decides it really is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

          The next morning, Trevor is out of bed and dressed for school earlier than usual. Bounding down the stairs two at a time, he sees his parents already seated at the dining room table eating buttered toast and cold cereal. They are sharing a hearty laugh as the young boy pulls up a chair in front of an empty bowl.

          “You should have heard her,” his mom is saying. “I mean, she’s always been loopy, but this time she’s gone over the edge.”

          “Well,” his father replies, “I agree that Timberline’s newest addition is a little strange, but I kind of doubt he’s a Satanist. People don’t move here to conduct ritualistic animal sacrifices, or whatever she was suggesting.”

          Trevor’s mom chuckles, “Yeah, I don’t see that either… but he is an odd one. I swear, whenever I notice the guy he is either staring at his feet or off into space. I’ve seen him walk by the house three times now and each time he’s stumbled over something. Dude needs to get his head out of the clouds and pay attention.”

          As his parent’s continue making jokes about the neighbors, Trevor’s thoughts revert to the great gray owl. Upon awaking, the young boy first imagined last night’s visit to be nothing more than a dream. Drops of dried blood found where the mouse had met its fate confirmed the evening’s events. Pouring himself a bowl of cereal, Trevor realizes his afterschool activities are already planned. He needs to shell out some of his meager weekly allowance for another mouse, but after that, he is going owl hunting.

          When the three o’clock bell finally rings, Trevor realizes he hasn’t heard a word from any of his teachers. So lost in thought, the young boy had barely grunted at his friends between classes. All day he has wondered what might have prompted such a creature to be so brazen. With the exception of a family of raccoon thieves living in the park, he had never heard of such behavior from any local wildlife. Of course, those masked bandits had been routinely fed by townsfolk until they lost all fear of humans, so slipping inside an open window for a morsel, seemed totally plausible. But a great gray owl?

          The more Trevor thought about it, the more he became convinced the wise old bird could somehow sense the boy’s inherent kinship with animals. On some instinctual level, or, maybe by observing his loft from a distant perch, the owl believes the teenager to be trustworthy. Still, Trevor doubts he’ll ever see the bird at his window again; he needs to take the search to his owl’s house this time.

          Trevor hops off his bike outside Surly Bill’s Pet Emporium to find the obese, balding proprietor blocking the entrance. Bill is taping a sign to the glass door with a bold, black banner that says, “Lost Dog”. Below the headline is a picture of a bulging-eyed Chihuahua wearing a pink sweater and matching collar. As he finishes attaching the poster with a last strip of tape, the store owner notices Trevor standing behind him.

          “Weren’t you just here yesterday? What, can’t get enough of my charm?”

          “The day before,” Trevor replies, ignoring the question. “The mouse escaped before I could feed Rufus. I need another one.”

          “Outsmarted by a rodent, eh?”

          The big man’s laughter, sounding more like a high-pitched wheeze, causes his whole torso to jiggle as he squeezes through the door. Trevor rolls his eyes and follows the fat proprietor inside his humid store. As usual, the young boy is punched in the face by the pungent odor of animal waste followed by the faintest whiff of cedar chips. Never a fan of the only pet shop in town, Trevor throws his money on the counter, grabs his feeder mouse, and is back outside breathing fresh air before having to absorb more of Surly Bill’s habitually obnoxious comments.

          Biking the back roads of Timberline with the boxed rodent in one hand, Trevor decides to forgo checking in at home. Most days his mother has him complete afternoon chores before he can play. The young boy knows he’ll get a tongue lashing, possibly even grounded, but his compulsion to find the owl supersedes any fear of punishment. Trevor turns off the paved street leading to his house and stashes his bike next to a dirt trail running into the dense woods behind Miss Glickson’s shack. He and some neighbor boys had worn down the path over several years and the rocky, uneven course now ran a couple miles into the forest before hitting an abrupt cliff overlooking the slow-churning Timberline River. The spooky woods had always served as Trevor’s favorite haunt, his imagination running wild once surrounded by the bronze pillars of ancient Ponderosas.

          With Memorial Day a week off, and the weather finally acting like spring, Trevor’s forest is beginning to feel alive. The ground cover, spindly ferns, and berry bushes displaying tiny green buds soon to cover the forest floor with abundant greenery once again. Half-aware of the seasonal changes, the young boy ventures deeper into the woods, attention focused on the thick pine boughs overhead. Spotting a creature with such magnificently effective camouflage is next to impossible, so he is hoping the owl’s movement will give it away. Of course, as a nocturnal hunter, seeing the raptor active during the day is equally unlikely. His best real chance is to find the nest, but staring around at the countless tree trunks supporting one massive canopy on pine needles, Trevor begins to realize just how stacked the odds are against his search.

          An hour later, and a mile down the trail, the young boy has seen no trace of the great gray owl. Developing a kink in his neck from constantly looking up, and knowing that every passing second puts him in deeper trouble with his parents, Trevor decides to call off the search. His frustration is like bitter medicine on his tongue, but as he begins the journey back home, he tells himself there is always tomorrow. The teenager isn’t going to give up on his owl after just one day.

          A stone’s throw from Miss Glickson’s backyard, and still checking the branches overhead, Trevor catches both feet on an exposed root and falls flat on his face. The cardboard box flies from his hand landing hard on a boulder causing the lid to pop off and spill its contents. The mouse freezes amongst the fresh moss and last year’s dead leaves. It takes a split second for the creature’s flight instinct to override caution and the rodent charges towards the closest hollow trunk of a long toppled tree. Knowing he’ll never make it, Trevor still tries to scamper to his feet and pounce on the mouse before it can vanish inside the log.

          It may be a flicker of shadow caught in the corner of his eye, or a subtle disturbance in the calm air, but Trevor senses the presence of the great gray before he sees it. Managing to pitch himself forward just as the great bird skims the top of his head, the young boy hits the ground as the owl snatches the panicked mouse in one great claw without stopping. With his heart hammering in his chest, the teenager watches the giant owl takes its meal forty feet into the air and land in the first intersecting boughs of a massive old crag. His owl is perched on a pile of interwoven sticks and his heart nearly stops at what he notices next.

          Sharing the nest with the great gray owl are three oval shaped bundles of wispy gray down. A second later, he makes out two dark spots at the top of each egg-shaped pile of fluff and realizes they are bouncing slightly in the nest. Trevor’s owl towers above the three babies with her chest fluffed out looking as proud as any mother he’s ever seen.

          “Oh my,” he whispers. “I can’t believe it.”

          Picking his way around the fallen limbs at the base of the dead tree for a better view, Trevor notices a dark, golf ball sized wad of wet fur stuck to the ground. Dragging his attention from the baby owls for a second, the young boy peels the sticky mass from the earth for a closer look. Scattered throughout the clump of hair are small white bones and Trevor almost gags at the acrid stench emanating from what appears to be some small animal turned inside out. The teenager tosses the fascinating discovery aside before noticing several more of the compact balls scattered around the tree.

          Despite the ever-increasing alarms in his head, Trevor returns his attention to the bobbing owl family for a few lingering minutes. At this point, he’ll be lucky to avoid being grounded, which will defeat the purpose of having found his owl’s nest in the first place. Assuming he can talk his way out of being so late, the teenager can return any other day to visit the family of raptors. With a smile so big it hurts his jaw muscles, the young boy sets out for home. Maybe if he brings his mother here to witness the adorable baby owls for herself, she will understand.

          The teenager has barely turned his back to the nest when he spots a darkly dressed figure through the wall of ponderosa trunks ahead. Squinting his eyes, he realizes it is Timberline’s newest resident. The stranger is holding what looks like a short length of pink leather. Unaware of the young boy’s presence, the man sniffs the strap, and then with a grimace, tosses it as far from the trail as possible. A second later the man bends at the waist and picks up another dark object. Again, he holds it under his nose, before breaking up the small clod with his thumbs and letting the pieces fall to the ground. The man cranes his neck skyward, staring into the canopy overhead while circling the trunks of nearby ponderosas.

          Slinking closer down the path towards the stranger, and emboldened from the success of his own search, Trevor’s curiosity gets the best of him. “Looking for something?”

          The man jerks with a start and spins about facing Trevor with narrowed eyes somehow managing to look guilty and suspicious all at once. His demeanor seems to relax a bit as his gaze is dragged down to the small boy standing before him. A gravelly voice emanating from deep within the man’s chest seems to bely his more slender build.

          “I’m always looking for something. What are you doing out here?”

          Despite his dark clothes, peculiar behavior, and suspicious mannerisms, Trevor doesn’t sense any malice from the stranger. “I was looking for something too,” he replies mimicking the man’s oblique revelation.

          “Hard to find anything out here,” the man says stealing another glance towards the pine boughs above. “You guys gotta lot of trees in these parts. Think you’d see more birds.”

          The stranger’s casual remark causes one of Trevor’s eyebrows to rise slightly and a small smirk sneaks across his lips. “We have birds,” he replies. “Big ones… you just have to know where to look.”

          “Surprisingly enough,” he begins, his tone of voice slipping into the measured and pleasant cadence of one of his teachers, “you have to keep your eyes on the ground to find the type I’m looking for.”

          “Sounds like you know something about birds,” Trevor says.

          “Thirty years as a professional and still learning. They can always surprise you.”

          Talking with someone who might understand, appreciate, or possibly be jealous of his discovery, compels Trevor to suddenly blurt out, “We even have great gray owls.”

          The stranger’s body language transforms from gradually relaxing to rigid focus, his eyes instantly guarded once again. “A great gray?” he asks. “You sure? Do you have any idea how rare those are in these parts?”

          “I think she might be new to the area.”

          “She? How do you know it’s a she?” With every question the man seems to be bending lower, his face inching closer to the young boy. Uncomfortable with the older man’s sudden, intense scrutiny, Trevor is reminded of his pressing need to get home.

          “Because boys don’t have babies,” he answers at last. “I have to get go…”

          The young boy is interrupted by the man’s sudden intake of breath; his eyes popping wide open. “Athena has a clutch? Where? You have to show me her nest.”

          “Uuuuh, it’s not far, but I really have to go… wait, what did you just say?”

          “Never mind, never mind,” he stammers, the man’s eyes clouding to reveal an inner torment raging between anguish and joy. “Can you meet me here tomorrow? I need your help with something... and don’t worry, I have the climbing gear we’ll need. Suppose we can still visit that way…” he trails off leaving Trevor feeling as if the man is now talking to himself.

          Backing down the trail, away from the visibly distraught stranger, Trevor suddenly stops in his tracks as a mental lock tumbler falls into place. Athena? Climbing gear? “What did you want to do?” he asks.

          “We’re going to move her nest over to the river… and we’re going to keep it to ourselves,” he says, conflicted eyes suddenly sparkling mischievously. “Your neighbors will appreciate it,” he says with a short laugh. “Trust me.”

No comments:

Post a Comment